15 Aug 2016

Writer Helene Wong on growing up Chinese in New Zealand

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 15 August 2016

Helene Wong - writer and film critic with The Listener magazine grew up in suburban Lower Hutt, the daughter of Chinese New Zealanders. Her new book Being Chinese traces her early life as part of a distinctive community - and one targeted with racist jibes in this country for a very long time. Her story also highlights how she became more aware of the importance of her Chinese identity and how it came to matter to her a lot more.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

You have mentioned a sense of denial about being Chinese. What was that about? Does that go back to a desire to fit in and to some of the overt racism you experienced as a child?

Yes, both of those things. This was common to most Chinese children of that generation; that we would be taunted on the way to school and sometimes at school.

We were well aware that we were perceived as different and our parents would tell us not to fight back, just to ignore it, keep your head down and don’t respond and like good Chinese children we all did that.

And we found, each in our own way, that the best way to handle it was to be invisible. To deny any Chinese in you. So we became very engulfed in the Kiwi culture deliberately so people wouldn’t notice that you were different.

So that was the denial, the refusal to speak Chinese, the refusal to wear Chinese clothes, the refusal to do anything that would mark you out and might provoke a racist taunt.

For me it wasn’t a painful denial, I was perfectly happy to indulge in Kiwi culture, but as I grew up I realised there was something missing through that denial.

Were there two lives, in many ways? You were the only Chinese New Zealander in the school you went to and you talk about fitting in and the concept of denial around European New Zealanders, but you also talk about in the book the very rich social lives of your parents and others as well and the Mah Jong parties and a very supportive community. In some ways did you move between two worlds?

Yes. It was easy to do that. I never felt outside of either of them and that’s really what bi-culturalism is about in the end. It’s a bit like being bi-lingual or multi-lingual, you just move smoothly from one to the other, depending on the situation you are in, so that is what I did in terms of social interaction. It was easy. The only time it wasn’t easy was when I was required to behave like a Chinese within a New Zealand ‘white’ situation. That’s when you felt embarrassed and self-conscious.